Monday, July 29, 2013

CinemaBeach: I Watched the Tape

V/H/S 2

Year: 2013
Director: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Edúardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Gareth Huw Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener
Cast: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott, Adam Wingard
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

Electronic crackles and pops fill the air. The screen goes fuzzy until… a burst of blue and the word “PLAY” appears in block letters in the upper right hand corner. You’re not watching a home video. You’re at the beginning of indie horror’s new installment of the found footage anthology series V/H/S.
While the original film made a splash with its exploration of how people actually find “found” footage films and segments directed by big indie stars, it was a mediocre effort – haphazardly done and unnecessarily misogynistic.V/H/S 2 follows more or less the exact same structure – a series of found footage short films by a variety of prominent indie directors linked by a not very coherent story that takes place in a supposedly abandoned apartment. Yet somehow this one works just so much better.
Note: For clarity’s sake, I’ve split my review into five parts – one for each segment of the film.
“Tape 49″ (dir. Simon Barrett)
Simon Barrett produced both films and co-wrote several segments, so it only makes sense that his story should be the one to provide the overarching narrative. Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) is an unscrupulous private detective who was hired by a woman to break into the abandoned apartment and discover what happened to her son. He drags along his girlfriend and accomplice, Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott). They come across an abandoned set of VCRs and a pile of unmarked VHS tapes, and Ayesha sits down to watch some of them to see if they contain any evidence while Larry investigates the rest of the dwelling.
This story largely follows the same beats of the previous movie and although it is somewhat chilling as it is (the couple is most definitely not alone), its only real purpose is to glue the other segments together and we don’t get to spend a lot of time with these two.
The biggest flaw is one that is prevalent throughout the segments – there are far too many different recording devices being used. Larry has a button camera and a professional looking handheld with a lamp. Ayesha has a little still photo/handheld hybrid, and a webcam also records her every move. The segment cuts between shots from all four sources, which practically destroys the core concept of “found footage” from the get go. It is far too heavily edited to seem like something that somebody just discovered in an abandoned camera. This is forgivable, but for the keenest of observers it can tread a little too far into Hollywood unreality.
“Phase 1 Clinical Trials” (dir. Adam Wingard)
The You’re Next director also stars in this short as Herman, a man who lost his eye in a tragic car accident. The doctors fit him with a bionic eye, but this technology is only in its early stages, so they are taping everything he sees as a test run for the beta system. The eye works maybe too well, and when he gets home he begins to see things that shouldn’t be there, like a dead man with blood smeared on his face standing in the bedroom. A fellow patient (whose bionic gift restored her hearing) named Clarissa (Hannah Hughes) barges into his home uninvited. Clarissa explains it all, and Herman learns that if he interacts with these beings, they will only get stronger.
Wingard has already proved that he can flawlessly marry laugh-out-loud with whiplash-inducing shocks in his previous film so the humor is at a low ebb in this segment, but he can’t resist throwing in the odd silly line reading or self aware joke. This short is mostly a straight horror piece, but the light tone is just about the only pleasantness we’ll get for the rest of the film and the segment’s crash and burn ending is a portent the dark world we are about to enter.
There’s another conceptual issue here – there is a slight musical score that, although subtle, absolutely does not belong in a found footage movie.
A Ride in the Park (dir. Edúardo Sanchez & Gregg Hale)
The director and producer of the now-classic The Blair Witch Project return to found footage with this clever twist on the genre craze they helped to ignite. A biker (Jay Saunders) puts a camera in his helmet so he can film his wild ride through the local park’s twisting paths. With little preamble, he finds himself smack dab in the middle of a zombie outbreak. He doesn’t last long, but the tape doesn’t end there. The camera is still attached to his head as he rises up, just another member of the undead horde.
That’s right, this is a first-person zombie movie, something I don’t think has ever been attempted before. It is a fascinating and wholly original angle that makes do with a criminally low effects budget. Perhaps less scary than its companions, it more than makes up for that with its incredibly clever premise.
Leave it to the Blair Witch guys to completely turn the concepts of two genres on their heads simultaneously.
Safe Haven (dir. Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto)
This segment centers around a documentary crew’s efforts to interview a notorious cult leader in his compound. Evans, the director of the Indonesian action superhit The Raid: Redemption teams up with another Indonesian director for a segment that is shot mostly in – you guessed it – Indonesian. These two are given the largest slot in the anthology and have more time to thoroughly explore their premise and crank up the slow burn.
Eschewing the jump scares of the other entries for horrific body horror, this segment is a clear standout in a crush of amazing horror short films. I’d rather not say much about this one for fear of spoiling the atmosphere of dread it creates.
Slumber Party Alien Abduction (dir. Jason Eisener)
Birthed from the mind of the director of Hobo With a Shotgun and directly based on his childhood nightmares, this short is relentless and adrenaline-pumping. A group of preteen boys at a slumber party are left at home alone in the care of a big sister (Samantha Gracie). Naturally, the second her parents leave, her boyfriend (Rylan Logan) pulls up for a little playtime of his own.
The kids pull a prank on the couple in the middle of a particularly steamy session and record the whole thing. The boyfriend threatens to kill them, but the enormous foundation-rumbling screech that comes from outside proves he might not get there first. Filmed mostly from the perspective of a dog with a camera tied to his back, the group panics and attempts to escape what turns out to be a group of highly committed alien abductors.
Despite the heavy subject matter, this segment is easily the most fun because it is filmed with a sort of childish glee by Eisener, who makes great use of his parents’ property in Nova Scotia. In a setting he is intimately familiar with, he has free reign to have as much fun as he wants and it clearly shows through the shocks and the screaming.
V/H/S 2 pulls so far ahead from V/H/S that it’s almost not fair to compare the two films. Alas, they are inextricably connected, but this film does a mighty job of steering the franchise onto the right path. Although it is susceptible to the flaws of most low budget found footage films (namely, some mighty poor acting and a couple less than convincing make-up effects) and has some struggles with the overall concept (how on Earth did the recordings of a bionic eye end up on a VHS tape?), the flick was so frightening that I sometimes wondered why I was doing this to myself.
It’s really quite astonishing how much better it is than its ancestor in terms of pacing, horror, creativity, and, well, everything. The gross misogynist undertones are abandoned and the terror levels are ramped up to 11. And though a few make-up effects left something to be desired, there is a particularly gruesome and lovely first-person shot of a severed carotid artery and the best throat-slitting ever committed to celluloid.
If you read that last sentence and were disgusted, this movie is not for you. If you were intrigued and want to see the keenest horror film out today (and second only to [REC] as the best found footage film I’ve ever seen), take a look atV/H/S 2.
TL;DR: Featuring a cadre of prominent indie horror directors, V/H/S 2 is miles ahead of its predecessor and makes the most of its premise.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? It was hardcore - I regretted bringing Sergio to it. So only if you're really committed, but I loved it.
Word Count: 1512

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